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Cannonball Read III: PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

By bat | Books | February 20, 2011 |

By bat | Books | February 20, 2011 |

My review of PopCo can best be summarized with the following words: What the fuck happened to you, PopCo? You and I were getting along great, and then you had to go fuck it up. You’re like everybody’s asshole ex-boyfriend/girlfriend.

I admit it, I bought the book for the cover. My edition is a beautiful deep royal blue with silvery swirls, and the page edges have also been dyed blue. Aside from books made of solid gold or solid chocolate, this is the next best thing.

The book started off being amazing balls. About a hundred pages in, I still had no idea if it would turn out to be a murder mystery, some kind of science fiction, a coming of age/reawakening story, or what.

What it turned out to be is a big fucking disappointment, people. But I’ll get to that.

The book follows protagonist Alice, a very smart loner who you meet walking through a deserted train station in the dead of night because she prefers to travel when there are no people around. She pretty much prefers to do anything with no people around. And she won’t, yet, tell you why. Alice works for a toy company, coming up with ideas for new toy products. She invents toys that appeal to loner kids, like spy kits and survival guides. She ends up on a retreat for her company in the isolated English countryside, and during her stay there she begins to suspect that the company is more sinister than she initially thought. She also begins to receive mysterious coded messages from someone, which makes her highly anxious. She starts to reveal her past to the reader, and the fact that she grew up with her grandparents, who were famous code breakers and who taught her everything they knew. A lot of the cipher stuff is just fun facts you may have learned about on television or something, but the story is told so well that it all sounds extremely Complex and Important and Serious. There also may or may not be a treasure involved. That’s right.

The book is also full of reflections about how enormous multinational companies operate, about their lack of conscience when it comes to increasing profit margins, and about how they try to get into our brains so that they can get us to buy their shit. The book criticizes marketing research and the outsourcing of manufacturing in particular (aka sad people in sweatshops in China), but manages to do it within the confines of the mysteries surrounding Alice, which is refreshing. In this case, Thomas weaves her agenda into the totally engrossing story very masterfully, so you should enjoy the book even if you yourself, for some reason, own a sweatshop in China.

And then, I have no idea what the fuck happened. Is it a spoiler if I tell you about stuff that happens near the end of the book? I guess. Except that the book ending sort of has nothing to do with anything. In any case, here it is. *SPOILER, STOP READING, IF YOU CARE* The last fifty pages told me explicitly to become vegan. For reals. It was fifty pages telling me that I should become vegan, and that people who aren’t vegan are just big ole dicks. Look, if I want to be beat over the head about being vegetarian or vegan, I’ll read Eating Animals, okay? Actually, Eating Animals was not nearly as heavy handed this book. The weird thing is, Thomas tries to be completely radical and to reveal how evil big companies and the meat industry are, but her suggestions for alternate lifestyles are not all that radical. She rails against consumerism, but instead of suggestion an anti-consumerist model, she just says we should buy stuff from friendlier companies.

Another thing that made my brain explode, because it makes no sense at all, is that Thomas then goes on to say that you can’t be expected to do everything right, and that if you don’t want to give up smoking, it’s okay, even though your money goes to support Big Tobacco. Why does she emphasize that one should give up animal products in order to lead a moral life, but waves aside other things like giving up cigarettes? The tobacco industry isn’t exactly super friendly, plus a while back they merged with Kraft and now own all of the processed foods in the world as well. Why wave that aside? I have no fucking idea. Thomas probably just loves smoking. Who knows. Look, none of it makes sense. The argumentation is dumb as a bag of bricks, people. *END SPOILERS*

Nevertheless, and I can’t believe I’m saying this again, I would totally recommend this book. Alice’s story is engaging and full of suspense and a lot of fun to read. It’s probably one of the five most fun books I’ve read in the past few years. At least the first 90% of it was. The rest of it, holy guacamole.

For more of bat’s reviews, check out her blog, oysters but no pearls.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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